It lurks in your basement, it's a dirty job - but someone's got to do it, right?

MONDAY morning, the alarm just went off, and it's time to face the most burning issue of the day. We're not talking nuclear deterrence, environmental protection, or even equal rights here. We're talking laundry - as in, Do I have anything clean to wear?

``Laundry is one of those things that's urgent, but not important,'' says organizing consultant Alice Shepherd. ``At the end of your life, you don't want to look back and say, `I've really accomplished something, I did 100,000 loads of laundry.' But still, everyone wants a clean shirt in the morning,'' she explains.

The lack of clean laundry is one of those dirty little secrets of the 1980s. With more women employed away from the washer/dryer, doing the laundry has become ``more of a catch-as-catch-can thing,'' says Mildred Gallik of the Soap and Detergent Association.

``We know that more children and teen-agers, and even occasionally husbands, are doing the laundry these days,'' she says. ``And products are catering to people with less time - mixing the fabric softener in with the detergent, for instance.''

But owning a box of The Compleat Detergent isn't, let's face it, the same as getting the laundry done. For that, you need a system.

``Oh, sure I have a system,'' says one frazzled mother, who refuses to be named. ``I wait until everyone is out of everything, and then I gather about 20 loads and run three. Then we will pick it off the laundry table for awhile until people start complaining, and I run three more. I haven't seen the top of my laundry table in five years,'' she laments.

``Laundry needs to be sorted into small jobs,'' says Ms. Shepherd. ``And the good news is that this is a major area [a parent] to unload responsibility. Even small children can do some parts of the laundry cycle.''

She's not just talking about the get-the-clothes-dirty portion, either. Young children can gather at least their own part of the laundry, help sort things into light and dark piles, and put away their own clothes, she thinks.

And school-aged children can learn to run the machines. ``We think anyone who can read can do the laundry,'' says Peggy Jones, co-author with sister Pam Young of ``Sidetracked Home Executives.''

How often you start the laundry cycle depends on the size of your family and the way you work best. The experts recommend that it be done on a regular basis so you'll remember it - start a load every morning before leaving for work, say, or every evening before going to bed. Or do it every Tuesday while you watch your favorite shows, or every time you pay your bills.

``Doing the laundry can sound ominous,'' says Shepherd. ``It's easier if you fit it in with some other work you're doing near the washing machine. Nobody wants to be chained to a machine.''

Here are the experts' tips for running the whole cycle:

Gathering. In her book ``Mother's Almanac,'' Marguerite Kelly suggests that each child have a laundry basket in his or her closet. When it fills up, she runs the clothes through the machines and then hands them back to the child in the same basket, for the child to fold and put away. ``That way, it never has to be sorted,'' she writes.

That's the idea; the reality may be a little different. ``It behooves you to check the drawers of a child or a teen periodically to find the thing they thought could still be worn because it was still in one piece,'' says Shepherd. ``But I would just announce, `I plan to do the laundry today; if you want anything washed, bring it out.'''

Peggy Jones and Pam Young say they pick up those clothes that are left overnight on the floor in a trail behind a disrobing child, soak them in the sink, and then stick them in the freezer.

``That way,'' says Ms. Jones, ``when your daughter comes to you a week later and says, `Have you seen my hockey socks?', you can say, `Yes, I found them in the hall,' and pull them out of the freezer.''

``It's funny,'' her sister points out. ``You don't have to be a nag, and you get your point across. They don't do it twice.''

Sorting. One woman we heard of never sorts her laundry at all - she picks out the whites twice per year and bleaches them to within an inch of their lives; the rest of the year she just lets it go. But Ms. Gallik of the Soap and Detergent Council thinks good sorting and preparation can save you having to go back and redo everything.

``I just grab any kid who's around to help me sort,'' says John Mallon, father of nine, who does ``a load or two every day.''

Sorting can be as simple as light/dark, or include complex categories like Things to Be Placed in Mesh Bags. You can clip socks together with the plastic rings you find on bread bags or with safety pins, apply extra detergent to ground-in dirt, tie belts and sashes loosely, or just be grateful that the things spend time in water with soap that smells like a lemon.

The Sidetracked Sisters have a basket each for dark, colored, and white placed in front of the washing machine; children are expected to unload their own laundry into the appropriate category, and run a load from the basket that looks fullest. Others recommend putting at least two large containers near the washing machine to aid the sorting process.

Shepherd suggests you insist the laundry comes to you with zippers zipped, cuffs rolled down, and socks unballed, ``and just leave the items that aren't properly prepared. They'll notice in a month, and you can say, `Oh, it's in the laundry room with the cuffs rolled up.' I've tried this, and it doesn't happen more than once or twice.''

Washing. Any child capable of playing a video game can run a washing machine, with a little instruction. ``More people are going to warm wash or even cold water,'' says Gallik. ``And most people use the same cycle, unless they have a permanent-press load.''

Drying. If a child is doing this, they need some hints on what goes into the dryer and what gets hung up, like a shower curtain. They also need to learn to clean out the lint trap.

Folding. Some people maintain that it's easier to fold as it comes out of the dryer - the permanent-press items never need to be ironed, and you never face a pile of unsorted laundry. Not everyone can be there when the buzzer goes off, however (or even own a dryer). They might like Blythe Bisbee's method. A mother of three children under the age of 5, she hands the kids to her husband, turns on the evening news, and folds laundry during her ``break.''

Others don't fold at all - they just sort out what belongs to whom, and hand the mass to the right body.

Putting away. The Mallons have the best method for this, we think. They fold the laundry into 11 piles on the dining room table, and everyone has to put their laundry away before they can eat dinner.

``We used to do it on the table in the basement,'' says Mr. Mallon, ``but it wasn't as compelling to put it away.''

Shepherd thinks putting laundry away is ``one of those great levelers in a family. If the children fold the laundry and put it on everyone's bed, then even Mom and Dad have to put it away.''

One last point, best expressed by historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her book, ``More Work for Mother.'' After nagging her husband for six months on the ``right'' way to do laundry, she says, he complained that ``the rules for doing laundry were not unlike those that the Civil Rights statutes were intended to abolish: that is, rules propagated to create a spurious expertise, which allows one group of people to exclude another group from an enterprise that should be accessible to all.'' Not a single piece of clothing had been ruined under his less-apartheid-like system, he maintained.

So if the methods others arrive at for doing laundry in your household result in the occasional pink undershirt, relax. It's a dirty job, but if you work it right, everyone's got to do it.

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